Saturday, January 25, 2014

More GOP Rule Changes in Store

Once again, I've been beaten to the punch on things invisible primary, but Fridays are filled with classes and cricket (I'm proud to be the Bob Uecker of the SDSU Cricket Club), so delay was inevitable.  In truth, I've been pondering this post since December when details began to emerge about the rule changes the GOP was considering, particularly their plan to compress the nomination calendar.  The mulling is now over, and changes have been adopted.  Over at Bloomberg, Jonathan Bernstein has an insightful post on the net effects of the rule change on the nomination process.

Speaking for myself from the perspective of a political scientist, the GOP navel gazing is at once heartening, yet quite frustrating.

To the former, as someone who spends a great deal of time studying institutions, it nice to see that politicians and party officials recognize that individual behaviors are affected by rules and structures, and that they are trying to harness that behavior in a positive direction.

What's frustrating is precisely what Bernstein dubs "fighting the last war;" ferreting out what they felt went wrong in the last race and rearranging institutions based on some pretty spurious evidence of what made the election break against them.  Could the calendar have mattered in 2012?  Highly unlikely.  As Bernstein articulates (and as most political scientists would concur) the happenings of the primary season are noticed by only a very small sliver of the population and they're lost in collective memory come November.  Assuming that the divisions of the primary season aren't indicative of deep, irreconcilable factionalism  - and 2012 wasn't such a case - an extended primary isn't the worst thing that can happen to a party.  And frankly, it didn't take an undue amount of time for Republicans to choose Romney in 2012.  GOP suspicions in 2012 that the partial move from primarily winner-take-all to a degree of proportionality in delegate allocation in early primary states drew out the nomination fight were effectively shown to be mythological by Josh Putnam and John Sides.  GOP navel gazing by the likes of Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, and John McCain was purely speculative, superficially impressionistic, and wildly uninformed with readily available empirical evidence.  It seems to me that these rule changes now are due in part to the survival of this myth.  What's more important to the party's general election prospects are election fundamentals, and what candidates can do in their campaigns to make the best of the cards they are dealt.  That's what the party ought to be concerning itself with, not so much the timing of primaries and sanctioning states for breaking their rules.  It's just not determinative of general election results, or even the results of the nomination fight.  Now, if a primary season is extended by an inability of the party to triangulate on an acceptable candidate across factions that is highly problematic, but a compressed calendar isn't going to help, as the party's got far bigger issues to worry about.

One minor departure that I take from Bernstein's post has some direct relevance to the invisible primary.  While he's spot on in noting that "any old crank" can have a good two weeks in the pre-primary period (and if the timing is right lucky, in the early primary states ala Santorum), I'm more confident that threshing machine of the invisible primary will effectively separate the wheat from the chaff.  So by my reckoning, a compressed calendar won't make much of a difference on nominee quality.  While the cranks might stick around for the sake of landing a book or TV deal, the probability was exceedingly low that the GOP would nominate Bachman, Cain, Santorum, or Gingrich, as each were at the very best factional leaders, and frankly, not particularly serious candidates to begin with.  To the extent that proved necessary, Romney had the party behind him before the first vote cast in Iowa.  The invisible primary actually threshed out some serious candidates, as it should, like Governors Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry.  And though this thought isn't original to me (and for the life of me I cannot remember who had written it) we know they were serious because they dropped out when they recognized nomination was out of their grasp.  What was left for Romney to contend with were empty husks of challengers, that more or less blew away in the in the early primary season winds.

The bottom line for me (like Bernstein) is that neither party should worry too much about the little details of their nomination systems, they just don't matter that much.  While wholesale changes we saw in the aftermath of the 1968 election cycle were very consequential (and the parties had to scramble to adapt), it seems to me that monkeying around on the margins carries high opportunity costs.  Spend the time, money, and effort on ensuring the chaff is separated from the wheat effectively in the primaries while keeping your party unified, and help nominees carefully choose a general election path that maximizes political return on the fundamentals they have to work with.  Should both parties play a larger role throughout the entire electoral process, our democracy will be that much better off.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sometimes It Isn't So Invisible

A quick tip of the toque (it is -5 outside) to Seth Masket for putting his tweeps onto this NYT article a few moments ago.  As Masket noted, sometimes the signs of party insiders gravitating towards a candidate are very "subtle" indeed.  In this case, with Priorities USA being handed over from President Obama's allies to supporters of Hillary Clinton's likely run, it's as subtle as a sledgehammer.  According to Open Secrets, Priorities USA pumped about $65 million into outside spending in 2012, with nearly all of it on negative ads targeting Mitt Romney.  While they were outpaced by nearly $100 million by Karl Rove's American Crossroads, we're talking about an organization poised to spend a serious chunk of change come election season.  While we're talking big bucks here, the significance of this in regards to the invisible primary, isn't so much the potential funding, but the people lining up in her corner.

As important as this is, we must remember that in the invisible primary, just as in the general election, money isn't a guarantee of success.  As I noted here, not only is the term "money primary" something I'd like to relegate to the dustbin of the political lexicon (as it tends to conflate two separate processes: one nearly determinative of the nomination outcome, one not at all so), the key financial variable that we need to pay attention to at this stage is the money flowing from the candidates to other political organizations (candidate, committees, and parities), rather than flowing to them.  Obviously, the stream of money through outside groups, who in turn spend on behalf of a candidate, has had an imprint on the invisible primary, but just how instrumental of a role it has in securing the actual nomination is yet to be seen.  Of course the rules could very well change in any given cycle, but I'm skeptical about declaring that sort of seismic shift in the invisible primary rule book until we see some hard evidence in our 2016 postmortems.

Regardless, this is a clear sign that many in the Democratic party elite, in this case key operatives and fundraisers, are triangulating on a certain focal point; and boat loads of outside spending certainly won't hurt Clinton's chances.  For me, I'm still betting that the real key to Clinton's invisible primary success or failure will be how much money she can direct towards others within the party, just as George W. Bush was doing at this point in the 2000 election cycle.  The only real difference as I see it between now and then, is that some of the means of funding and spending have been further refined (yes refined) in the intervening 16 years.  The same can probably be said for the rules of the Invisible Primary.

Addendum: I was rereading chapter 8 of The Party Decides this morning for a research project I've just picked up (stay tuned, as it's all about the invisible primary), and a very prescient passage jumped out at me.  For those of you that haven't read the book, do so soon.  For those who have, recall the analogy the authors use of "the restaurant game" (a large group of people deciding on what type of restaurant to go to) for the various factions of a party triangulating on a candidate.  "If fish lovers flock to the fish restaurant, it provides little information to diners who happen not to be fish lovers." (261)  That is largely what's happening here.  The original NYT article notes, that this is a veritable who's who of the Clinton administration's political team, with a few Obama hangers around thrown in the mix.  Obviously the fact that the Obama crew has handed off the structure of Priorities USA is an important development, but we mustn't lose sight of the fact that what we're seeing here is previously loyal Clinton people rallying back to Clinton for this open nomination.  Should they cast a wider net, and start bringing in folks from other Democratic factions (beef and porker lovers, and vegans, to press the analogy further), then we've getting somewhere in terms of invisible primary traction.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Screw me? Screw You! The IP Chris Christie Edition

There is much hullabaloo at this moment about IP fave and current NJ Governor Chris Christie’s political plot to snarl traffic in an attempt to thumb his honker at the Democrats. Christie has acquired for himself a rather bad-boy reputation as an aggressive and plain talkin’ politician who sticks it to the media (bad media!) and opponents (bad opponents!) and teachers (bad – wait. What?).  Christie’s intensity has endeared him to many on the right who like to use words like “strong” and “powerful” when describing the kind of take-no-prisoners leader they idealize. You know – the exact opposite of the wishy-washy equivocating liberal stuff they get from the Democrats.

But there’s always the other side of the coin, and while some may admire Christie’s force others have called him a bully. The kind of bully who yells at people and leaves them shaking in fear. Which is why the story about the GW Bridge feeds into the Christie narrative so well, and is such a compelling story to tell nationwide.

What could be seen as a regional spat went global because of Christie’s anointment as IP front runner for 2016. But it also landed solidly because many people already think Christie is a tyrant. Whether or not he knew that his underlings closed lanes of the George Washington Bridge as a political maneuver is almost beside the point, because people already believe he is capable of such scheming. The joke lands because we get it. Christie’s a bully. We got it.

Also, there is the question of what kind of office he is running. According to military experts (meaning: My husband) there is an Army expression called “Command Climate” which is loosely defined as the environment established by a leader. In other words: The example set by a boss  is important. If Christie’s command climate encouraged or even just allowed such machinating, that speaks loudly to his leadership and management style. And while voters like force, they don’t like intrigues, plotting, and manipulations done out of spite. Ask Richard Nixon – they’ll get you for that.

So this is why the GW Bridge story has legs and why it matters to the Invisible Primary. It will be interesting to see how Christie manages the story and what happens to his front-runner status which has already been codified by big press coverage. It will also be interesting to see how the new NY Mayor deals with all of this, how comedians make hay of the situation, and whether or not it will impact the polar vortex.  Mittened fingers crossed that it helps warm things up outside the Christie household.